Developing a leadership style is something of a mammoth task for everyone. For members of the LGBT+ community, who are still less visible in the workplace, this comes with unique challenges. Programme Director of ESCP’s LGBT+ Leadership Programme, Stephan Schmuck gives The Choice a detailed analysis of key topics surrounding LGBT+ leadership and visibility in the workplace.
Hi Stephan! To begin, what inspired you to relaunch the LGBT+ Leadership programme?
Stephan Schmuck: For me, it was serendipity! I’ve been involved in work related to the LGBT+ community for many years, but I was particularly inspired by the 2016 edition of the RAHM x ESCP Berlin LGBT+ leadership community contest, which made visible the extent to which LGBT+ talent has started to become visible in business.
I was also influenced by the impact of Jens Schadendorf’s crucial book GaYme changer: How the LGBT community and their allies are changing the Global Economy (2021). The book discusses leadership support and role model visibility at length, yet the term “LGBT+ leadership” is absent from the book’s otherwise comprehensive index. This caught my eye and made me think about the implication for questions surrounding LGBT+ leadership.
LGBT+ individuals have always taken on leadership roles, but – with exceptions, of course – they’ve often felt pressure to hide their authentic selves in the workplace. Thanks to the advocacy and work of organisations such as our partner PROUTAT WORK this is slowly changing. ESCP’s LGBT+ Leadership Programme acknowledges the unique challenges encountered by LGBT+ employees in work environments in which their minority status is either disclosed or undisclosed, while offering them an opportunity to develop their individual leadership capacities and presence to empower them in their leadership roles. These skills are not dependent on LGBT+ characteristics, but as a stigmatised group, LGBT+ identity certainly impacts their leadership experience in the workplace.
Finding your leadership style is a highly individual process that’s hugely dependent on what leadership means to you.
Why are questions about LGBT+ leadership so crucial for businesses today?
Schmuck: Leadership is key to any diversity and inclusion (D&I) effort in a company. Without support from top-level management, most inclusion work is almost always bound to fail. One reason for the necessity of leadership advocacy is that D&I and LGBT+ inclusion are sometimes viewed as group-specific concerns alone, when in fact they are of cross-sectional importance to a company.
It’s important to remember that both external and internal corporate communication plays an important role in communicating this commitment – I’m thinking of Deutsche Bahn’s rebranding of one of its flagship ICE Trains to honour the commitment of the company’s LGBT+ employee resource group (ERG), Railbow, ahead of Pride 2021. In a world where 40% of LGBT+ staff are not out at work, this is certainly no small feat. These figures point to internal challenges that are certainly influenced by cultural context, but that can also be addressed in a constructive way, especially if the make-up of a company’s workforce is international. For example, in April 2022, Florida’s “Don’t-say-gay” bill – a law that limits LGBT+ discussions in school – was formally opposed by Walt Disney Co. after its employees urged the company to act. This brilliantly illustrates the key role that organisations – whether they are public or corporate institutions – can play in translating demand for equality by helping to shape public opinion.
How can individuals find their leadership style and adapt to combat the challenges LGBT+ individuals face in the workplace?
Schmuck: I’d like to break this question down for clarity. The central question surrounding LGBT leadership is not just about leaders combating the challenges LGBT+ employees face, but about LGBT+ talent being highlighted in leadership roles. As the saying goes: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” With the LGBT+ Leadership programme, we really wanted to create an affirmative programme that provides a positive framework through which to view how LGBT+ talents contribute to organisational life. Concretely, the sessions are designed to benefit all stakeholders: to leverage LGBT+ talent in leadership for more fluid ways of working; to bring one’s authentic self to the job and promote happiness and inclusion at work and to encourage and create sustainable recruitment for future generations.
With that said, finding your leadership style is a highly individual process that’s hugely dependent on what leadership means to you. Traditional leadership notions often have very proscriptive expectations of what a leader should look like or how to behave, generally associated with a charismatic (often male) leader. Another type of leadership, known as transformational leadership, puts the emphasis on other aspects, such as power sharing, inclusion, collaboration, and role modelling to allow for more empowered followers. In the context of today’s highly globalised, technically-connected world, Western concepts of leadership have now evolved to meet the needs of organisational life in which leaders do not always have the answer to the challenges that lie ahead.
Today, leaders are characterised by their capacity to act as learners and facilitators of learning, as well as deal with complex issues in an agile, flexible way. This new style of leadership also creates more room for different types of leaders who are no longer prescribed by a set of fixed traits. Equally, with today’s focus on inclusion, collaboration, and diversity, team members are bringing new perspectives and approaches to their organisations. Connected with the changes over time I mentioned earlier, this has led to far more visibility in the representation of LGBT+ individuals and groups in business today.
How important is it for organisations to increase their credibility when it comes to LGBT+ individuals?
Schmuck: Credibility needs to be earned and continuously proven – particularly if a company has made a commitment to diversity and inclusion. In the case of LGBT+ individuals, this is significant in terms of employer branding, workplace culture, and recruitment, as the LGBT+ demographic is growing with the onboarding of GenZ. In fact, a 2020 survey undertaken by the Boston Consultancy Group outlined the need for companies to step up their diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts in view of the arrival of a new generation of the LGBT+ workforce.
Not only does the LGBT+ community account for a larger share of the overall workforce than before, but its makeup also changed significantly along ethnic and gender lines. Intersectionality too is imperative here. In addition, young straight colleagues tend to care more deeply about LGBT+ inclusion; they are 1.6 times more likely to know LGBT+ colleagues, 3.6 times more likely to join ally programs (where available), and 3.0 times more likely to find value in their LGBT+ colleagues being out, compared with older non-LGBT+ employees. Companies would do well to increase their credibility in this area if they want to stay relevant and competitive in the future.
Credibility needs to be earned and continuously proven – particularly if a company has made a commitment to diversity and inclusion
Finally, what are some of the ways in which leaders can leverage corporate communication strategies to be more LGBT+ inclusive, at all levels?
Schmuck: Credibility is hard to achieve, and scepticism certainly plays into this. What Lego achieved with their “EveryoneIsAwesome” campaign, launched in 2021 by openly gay Vice President of Design Matthew Ashton, signalled to future customers and employees the prospect of opportunity and leadership careers in which LGBT+ identity is one dimension of diversity. The company walks the talk by communicating its LGBT+ commitment, its inclusive environment, policies, and dedicated resources and continued engagement. The benefits of building such a credible work environment for LGBT+ individuals are clear: they bring their authentic selves to work. Inclusive and relational workplaces empower employees and increase social connectivity with colleagues, leverage talent and increase retention. Above all, credibility communicates to the world that this is a company for which people want to work, where LGBT+ leaders are able to lead and be visible.
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